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Linton Hopkins on Southern Terroirist Cooking

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Linton Hopkins was born in Rochester, NY and studied anthropology before becoming one of the key players in a group of Southern chefs and farmers working to restore, elevate, and redefine regional traditions. Hopkins works out of Atlanta, where his two businesses are Restaurant Eugene and Holeman & Finch Public House. In part one of our interview, the chef discusses his main concerns as a Southern chef, what it truly means to execute terroirist cooking, and the problems of cultural perception.

In the past few months, I've been lucky enough to talk to John Currence and Sean Brock, both of whom cite you frequently. We obviously talked about the Southern Revival and all the attention this group of chefs is getting. So, I wonder, how do you see yourself within that movement? What are your main concerns as a chef?
I think American regional, terroir cooking is a movement. For me, when I got into this world at CIA, I started thinking about what made the French chefs like Joël Robuchon and Alain Ducasse and Fernand Point so great. What separated them? It wasn't that they imitated the cuisines of other memories. They worked within their sense memories — their families, their culture, the kind of cooking from their roots.

In the south we've always done that, but on the professional level we had people like Paul Prudhomme and Frank Stitt say that they were going to cook in the south with the French chefs' aesthetic. You probably got this from Sean and John, but we're standing on the shoulders of giants who inspired and let us do this. Frank Stitt, for example, is a big hero of mine. Here he is, a big Alabama boy cooking in California, studying in France, being inspired by chef structure and restaurants.

You realize that one of the big secrets of trying to imitate Robuchon or Ducasse is that the food had a sense of terroir — that's what I think about most.

The foods were better because they had a direct connection with the place. Robuchon had a guy who just gave him veal, and he'd never get foie gras just from a purveyor. No, he knew the farmer that was making him that foie gras. We talk a lot about farm-to-table, but the best foods are the ones where the people that cook it are connected to the people that produce it. There's a real connection there that is beyond just the terminology we currently use to define it.

Beyond that, how does it extend to your cooking?
How do I cook from my place? I wouldn't be the same chef in a different area. So my role in that and the role of chefs down here now that we've benefited from all this press — after years in our cave kitchens — is that we feel a sense of responsibility in establishing good, long-lasting definitions and keeping those traditions alive that we love, that to me seem timeless and modern. I want to be part of that. If it comes down to a simple feeling, homemade mayonnaise makes the world better.

A better mayonnaise is made with a better egg. A better egg comes from a farmer who knows how to raise chickens for eggs. It really ties you in deep into how you make a better recipe. I really am trying to find terroir more and more in my food. What I truly want to celebrate is that. You know, we just got the first olive oil blend in Georgia. It's been almost 150 years since we last grew olives, and now it's back! For all the dour stuff in our food world, here are some things we can celebrate.

But I should say that we have a tendency in the south not to celebrate our own language. If I say "one chalet with polenta," I can sell it to you for $30. But if I say, "hog jowl and grits," its a buck-fifty at the gas station. Yet it's the same thing.

Do you attribute that more to perceptions from outside the region or forces within it?
It's both. There's an inside dynamic and an outside perception dynamic. You have forces like my mother who would say something like, "It's funny that you're getting known for pimento cheese." But I think you would have found the same viewpoint in France, where Robuchon's grandparents, even within a richer restaurant culture, would have told him something like, "Why are you celebrating pot au feu? That's a country peasant dish."

Or what happened in Georgia a bit ago: I did this dinner for CNN, and someone came up to me and told me that what I was cooking wasn't Southern food, as if it was putting on airs or being pretentious. We're not trying to do that at all. We're trying to celebrate the fact that here I am: a Georgia chef using Georgia ingredients in a different way that is very Southern. For me, Southern food is inclusive. It's not exclusive.

And from the outside?
Then when it gets looked at from outside, and any kind of regional group can attest to this: it's sort of like someone outside of your family talking about your sister. You immediately get defensive. But if it's you talking about your sister, you can be as critical as you want. So, I think that notion of territoriality very much applies in this case.

Has any of this improved with the wave of press and positive attention?
You know, it's still there. I remember doing a thing for a magazine a few years ago where I had to prepare some recipes. I talked to my dear friend John T. Edge and he said, "Make sure it's not the normal Southern canon of fried chicken and grain." Of course, they chose one of those dishes. That's fine, because that stuff is delicious. It's somewhat okay if someone wants to say, "Here's Southern food, we can wrap it in a little package and market it or sell it," because there are some benefits to that outside attention. I mean, look at Allan Benton: he's putting his kids through medical school by selling country ham. There's a real economic impact.

You know, Georgia sorghum wasn't celebrated. Now I'm sending it to friends of mine like Tom Colicchio and Christopher Kostow, who say they've never used it. If there is an economic impact, we can keep it alive. So, I don't mind it. We're doing all right.

The whole point is to make sure that none of the things these chefs and farmers are doing become a punch line or fad, no matter what external or internal forces work against it. It may seem silly to some that we're celebrating ham like this, for instance, but that has to remain that way. My belief is that these things will be here long after we're gone and that people will say somehow that this is a great new cuisine. Southern cuisine always should have a very forward momentum and not be a museum piece.

Before we talk about what constitutes "forward momentum," I wanted to go back and ask you about what you meant by establishing "long-lasting definitions" and bringing in things that are "timeless and modern."
Well, take rice bread. Here is something that was really part of our Low Country. It was a traditional gift, and rice culture used to really dominate the south. But it really was dropped; bakeries stopped making it. But we have our bakery make rice bread in a split-loaf, French shape — fendu. It's delicious. We serve it at Restaurant Eugene. You see all these things throughout history about crafts that are lost. How did they build that cathedral? What were the techniques of the Egyptians? It's the same thing with this. There are all these lost crafts, and the same applies to our food. Why aren't we celebrating it? Was it because it was a fad or a fancy? Is rice not a part of the Southern culture as much anymore? You just have to celebrate it.

Tomorrow, in part two, Hopkins talks about being Southern but also inclusive, balancing the modern with the traditional, and the importance of intellectual and academic curiosity in cooking.

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Restaurant Eugene

2277 Peachtree Road, Atlanta, GA 30309